Raise your hand if you’ve said these things recently: “I’m too stressed out,”, “Don’t stress me out!” “I feel so burnt out.” “I’ve got too much on my plate right now.” “I got a lot of things going on.” Besides monks in the Himalayans or my retired parents, if you’re like most people, these phrases have come out of your lips in some form or another within the past year. I’m here to tell you that it is okay. Stress is normal. And in this week’s blog post, I’m going to be going through the different types of stress and 9 simple ways to decrease stress in your life.
What is Stress?
According to Merriam Webster, stress is a “constraining force or influence” and then it goes on to list 5 sub definitions underneath of this.
It’s important to note that all of these definitions carry some sort of negative connotation. And in many ways, like sugar, stress has gotten a bad reputation over the past years as work demands and pandemics constantly “stress us out.” But did you know that stress can actually be positive and negative?
Stress can be a normal reaction to exciting events, like falling in love, buying a home, or landing a promotion. It is also a hard-wired survival technique that serves us as a means of protection. When activated, our “fight or flight response” is triggered, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes over to help us avoid danger. Both of these instances are examples of positive stress.
The problem is that our bodies don’t know the difference between being chased by a bear or simply having a bad day at work, a recent break-up, a traffic jam, etc. It is this latter version of stress that it usually is associated with and what eventually leads to burnout.
3 Types of Stress
While stress can be positive or negative, there are three different types of stress that are important to note: acute stress, chronic stress, and eustress.
- Acute Stress is stress that we experience for a brief amount of time. For example, running late to a meeting or being stuck in a traffic jam.
- Chronic Stress refers to stress experienced continuously over an extended period of time. The perfect example of this is the pandemic, which has impacted the lives of everyone all over the world. Chronic stress is horrible for us because it takes a major toll on our physical health and our mental health and increases pro-inflammatory markers in our body.
- Eustress is a very small amount of stress, like a deadline. This can actually be quite beneficial for us because it can help improve focus and increase motivation to get the work done. Like a couple that is about to get married and want to look their best, this eustress will help them achieve their fitness goals so that they can fit into that wedding dress or tuxedo on that special day. When this becomes overwhelming, though, that is when it affects our emotional state, our psychological state, and our health.
How Stress is Activated in our Bodies
There is a three-stage activation process for stress.
First, there is the alarm stage. This is when your body goes into panic mode because one of the three types of stresses has been induced and so it triggers cortisol and adrenaline to be secreted from your body to help equip your body to deal with the emergency at hand.
After this, it goes into the adaptive/resistance stage. This is where your body tries to go back to its equilibrium. When your stress signals are too strong, your body remains on high alert and because of this constant stress, there is an extended release of the hormones I listed in stage one. In turn, this makes our body more susceptible to illness by lowering our immunity defense mechanisms. The image below highlights some of the key functions that happen when stress gets too high.
The last stage is the exhaustion stage. This is when your body never returns to homeostasis. Here, your body shuts down because of its inability to cope with all the high demands and pressures of the day. After all, you can’t outrun a bear forever. The timeline below shows the body and its adaptability over these three stages.
9 Ways to Decrease Stress
As I mentioned before, stress is triggered via pressure put on the sympathetic nervous system, the SNS. It is important then to know that our body also has a parasympathetic nervous system, the PNS, which helps the body conserve energy and rest. It is the “rest and digest” counterpart to your “fight or flight” response.
Chances are you’ve probably never heard of this system. And, maybe you haven’t even heard of the last system, but I’m assuming that you’ve heard of the “fight or flight” response before. The reason why this doesn’t get as much attention as it should receive is that in today’s fast-paced society, chronic stress with the pandemic, the growing list of tasks we need to accomplish at work, inflation, war, and other things going on in the world, it is hard to just take a moment to be still. But stillness is what we need. If we want to increase our overall health and wellbeing, we must find time to induce our PNS. Listed below are nine ways that you can do just that and watch those stress levels fall.
- Practice calming activities. This is quite individual, but the idea is the same. Do something that doesn’t seem like stress to you. Something that allows you to be in your own special zone for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour or more. Something that you really enjoy. For some, that might be meditation or practicing tai chi. For others, that might be a great workout at the gym. Both of these things are going to reduce those cortisol levels.
- Respond with Intention. If someone says to you, “How are you?” Many of us will respond. “Okay.” “Fine.” “It’s going.” This is all examples of pathic communication. Many of us asking this simple question, expect a simple answer. But why be boring? Why not make our language juicier? Instead of saying “Okay” say something like “I’m delightful.” “I’m feeling succulent.” “I’m feeling so playful today.” This will not only tell your brain that you are all these things, but it will also catch the other person off guard and you can gauge whether or not they actually cared in asking how you were.
- Create an Appreciation Inventory. Before you go to bed, or first thing when you get up in the morning, create a list of things that you truly appreciate about life. What happened during the day or the day before that you feel blessed about? The more we appreciate, the more we align ourselves with our prefrontal cortex, the area where wisdom resides.
- Organize your work and living space. Essentially, this is feng shui. The translation for these two terms in English are “wind” and “water” respectively. It is a concept derived from an ancient poem that talks about humans being connected and flowing with the environment around them. Practioners of feng shui say that rearranging our living spaces can help create balance with our natural world. To learn more about it go here.
- Practice Love. What I mean by this is a simple technique I’ve been taught as a health coach. Try doing this sometime. Put your hand over your heart and think about someone (alive or passed away) who has you in their heart. Think about that person and you will feel your heart start to slow and then you will feel more relaxed. Reminiscing about someone close to us increases our positive emotions which will decrease anxiety, depression, and stress.
- Smile more. Do anything you can do to smile. Make a fool of yourself. Don’t take life too seriously. Smiling releases a slew of great endorphins that can help us become more relaxed. Also, laughing is contagious, that is why we all usually laugh at the same scene in a movie. We can do it to influence others, and when we laugh the world, and our lives, are better.
- Plan Your Schedule using a Daily or Weekly Planner. If you read my blog post about the top five non-fiction books you must read, then you’ll know that having a weekly planner is one of the key takeaways from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. While daily planners are nice, weekly planners are far superior because it gives us the ability to proactively do things, not reactively do things. If you are serious about becoming more effective and stress free, this piece of advice goes a long way to help you take back control of your life.
- Prioritize tasks. In today’s busy world, we like to multi-task. And while multi-tasking can be good in certain circumstances, many of us cannot be nearly as efficient as we should be while multitasking. An appropriate use of multi-tasking might be watching a tv show while on the elliptical; an inappropriate instance of mulit-tasking is watching the same tv show when your girlfriend or boyfriend is trying to have a serious talk. It is important than that we prioritize what really needs our attention and focus on one thing at a time. Coupling this with the tip above and you are well on your way to living a stress-free life.
- Delegate tasks. This is huge. You are one man or one woman. You cannot do everything. It is important to delegate tasks when necessary to other individuals so that your body doesn’t fizzle into burnout. Authors need editors to look over their books. Bodybuilders need masseuses (and protein 😝) to rejuvenate their sore muscles. Whatever large task that you’re trying to accomplish, make sure that you have the proper team to back you up. A team that balances out your own attributes, compliments the others on the team, and also is aligned with your values.
To help with a few of these points, I would recommend reading Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Not only does he include a mock-up of the weekly planner to help you be more proactive, which you can get by going over to our toolkit. He also goes through and explains his four quadrants chart below that compartmentalizes the four priorities of our lives and helps us understand what may be stressful and unimportant and those things that are truly important in our lives. Those who live stressful lives spend 90% of their time in Quadrant 1 and 10% in Quadrant 4. Those individuals who are particularly successful stay out of quadrant 3 and 4 altogether because, urgent or not, they are not important. But they also put more of an emphasis on quadrant two, and quadrant two is the PNS sector of our Quadrant 1 SNS.
Why is this Important?
Understanding stress and coming up with proactive ways to destress is essential to maintaining our holistic health. When we stress out, many of us turn to food as our way of comfort. Like drinking impairs our choices at the end of the night, stress impairs our judgement of food and next thing we know, we are scooping down a bucket of ice cream because our significant other just broke up with us. Or maybe your bucket of ice cream is a bottle of Jack Daniels. A buffet. Whatever that trigger food is, stress can make us run to it in order to seek some type of comfort that we’ve been craving. That, my friends, can ruin all the success we’ve been making in the gym and hold us back from reaching our goals.
Because of this reason, stress correlates with weight gain, which then triggers a multitude of other problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes. At the end of the day, those highly palatable foods rich in fats and sugars aren’t going to tackle the root cause of your stress. While they may send out signals to your brain that increase dopamine and give you that ‘feel-good’ chemical you’ve been craving, this is just a band-aid over a festering wound. And this is also why, as a holistic health coach, we don’t just take a look at the food on your plate because even if you are eating right, if stress is present in your life, then it may result in unwanted side effects that are going to decrease your longevity, health, and happiness.
If you like this content, please like it by smashing that thumbs up button, sharing it with your friends, and subscribing to more holistic health content. For more on holistic health, go over to my first blog post What is Holistic Health. If there is a topic you want to know more about, let me know in the comment section below. And if you would like an individualized holistic health plan, set up a free consultation with me by adding my wechat at: Mike-HealthCoach
Until next time, stay safe and keep stress out of your lifestyle. Unless, of course, you have a deadline to meet 😉